Restrictions to abortion access disrupts public health, data shows. Here’s how.
While abortion still remains legal in the United States with the 1973 landmark ruling of Roe v. Wade, some states are passing legislation that severely restricts abortion access. In mid-May, Alabama’s governor, Kay Ivey, enacted an almost universal ban on abortions in the state just days before Missouri’s House and Senate voted to do the same. The Alabama law, which is supposed to go into effect in six months, is expected to be challenged and ultimately heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
What Restricted Abortion Access Means for Women and Their Health
Alabama is the latest of seven U.S. states that have passed legislation limiting when an individual can have an abortion. States such as Georgia and Kentucky call for no abortions past six weeks of pregnancy, or when a fetal heartbeat can be detected; this is often before a woman knows she is pregnant. Lawsuits claiming these state measures are unconstitutional have been filed by the ACLU and Planned Parenthood in Ohio.
Such restrictions have plain public health effects, say experts.
“There are many areas across the U.S. where abortions are already out of reach for notable numbers of people,” says Sarah Roberts, a doctor of public health and an associate professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California in San Francisco. This lack of access is due to factors such as the fact that abortion costs aren’t covered by Medicaid, and laws that restrict abortions a pregnancy’s gestational length.
For Many Women, Limited Access to Abortion Means Limited Access to Healthcare
“When women are unable to obtain wanted abortions, they are tethered to violent men, they experience more economic insecurity than women who have abortions, and they experience more physical health complications,” says Dr. Roberts. These complications can include health issues related to pregnancy such as eclampsia, which is treated by immediate delivery, as well as external factors like the Zika virus, which a person can contract when bitten by an insect carrying the virus. Babies born to mothers who have contracted Zika can have serious birth defects.
What Women Who Can’t Get Wanted Abortions Look Like
The Turnaway study is a longitudinal examination of 1,000 women in the United States who could not get abortions. It found that the women experienced multiple public health issues because they could not terminate a pregnancy. The study, led by principal investigator Diana Greene Foster, PhD, found that women who couldn’t get a wanted abortion
- Were four times as likely to be living below the federal poverty level
- Were more likely to have pregnancy-related health problems such as eclampsia and maternal death
- Were less likely to have “aspirational life plans” for the next year
Childbirth Presents Health Risks for Women and Children
Indeed, says Roberts, “the research is clear that abortion is safer than childbirth, and childbirth is 14 times less safe in terms of morbidity and mortality.”
Others agree, citing the fact that abortion limitations most directly hurt people of color and those who do not have the money to easily travel to states without such restrictions.
Healthcare Obstructions Oppresses Women, Especially Poor Women
“These laws are another means of structural oppression,” says Keosha Bond, MPH, a doctor of education and an assistant professor of health behavior and community health in the department of public health at New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York. “They are trying to legislate who can and cannot have abortions. If you have money or access to money to have the ability to travel, you can have an abortion. [Without abortion access], this is going to keep people trapped in poverty for generations.”
Pitfalls of Compromised Healthcare
Measures that seek to criminalize providers who perform abortions, which are included in the new Alabama legislation, “put all parties involved in a compromised position,” says Dr. Bond. When women feel they can’t visit a healthcare provider because they may want to get an abortion, or even if they are experiencing symptoms such as bleeding that may be a sign of miscarriage, they may avoid seeking healthcare altogether, which can compound trauma. “You are going to cause more harm, because people who are miscarrying need to seek out a healthcare provider to make sure they are okay,” notes Bond.
A Healthy Pregnancy Requires Comprehensive Medical Care
“Pregnancy is not a very easy period to go through, and [people] need to have access to healthcare and not be scared they will have to have a police officer present in the room while they are being examined by a doctor,” says Bond.
Abortion Denial Affects the Public Health of Children, Too
Not letting women who want to abort has negative health effects on kids, too. In a December 2018 opinion piece in Stat, which cited research published in the Journal of Pediatrics in February 2019, Dr. Foster wrote about the effects of unwanted pregnancy on a woman’s existing children. The findings demonstrated that existing children living in families where the mother had a baby instead of an abortion were more likely to be living below the poverty level, or living in a family without enough money for food or adequate housing, when compared with similar families where the mother was not denied an abortion. another research, published in JAMA Pediatrics in October 2018 found that “women are also much more likely to report poor maternal bonding — feeling imprisoned as a mother, resenting their baby, or longing for the ‘old days’ before they had the baby — with the child born after abortion denial than with the next child born following a wanted abortion,” she wrote.
Self-Induced Termination and Other Desperate Acts Occur When Abortion Is Restricted, Data Says
When the right to abort gets restricted, some people try to terminate their own pregnancies, which can result to other health problems.
Roberts’s study, published in October 2018 in Sexuality Research and Social Policy, considered a women who had tried to obtain abortions in Louisiana (where restricted access are stiff) and Maryland (with easier access). Researchers saw that 11 percent of the women in Louisiana and 3 percent of the women in Maryland had tried to self-induce, using methods such as hitting themselves in the abdomen. “Even in our current environment, people are already attempting to self-induce, said Roberts. These numbers are sure to rise the more restricted abortion access gets across the United States.